Maj. Dick Winters was a lieutenant when he led his troops during the D-Day invasion of France. Beginning June 6, a statue of him will survey the Normandy landscape that saw the crucial operation that helped end the war. Winters died in 2011 at age 92.
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Sixty-six years ago Saturday night, Army Sgt. Bill Guarnere was dressed to kill.
Ammunition and hand grenades bulged from his uniform and a Tommy gun was slung over his shoulder as he sat in a C-47 transport on its way to Normandy, France.
By 1 a.m. – on June 6, D-Day – he parachuted directly into a firefight in the town square of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
The same day, Edward “Babe” Heffron waited in England for his turn at combat and prayed for the success of the invasion, dubbed “Operation Overlord.”
The two South Philadelphia natives later fought across Europe as members of the unit made famous by the best-selling book Band of Brothers and HBO mini-series of the same name.
Now both 87, the veterans are fighting together again, this time for a Normandy monument that honors their former commander, Richard Winters, and leadership of the Americans on D-Day.
“He was a good man and a good officer,” Guarnere said of Winters, who has been in ill health in recent months and no longer gives interviews. “He knew what he was talking about and took care of his men. A monument is a wonderful idea.”
Heffron said he “had the utmost respect for Winters. He carried himself like an officer and looked the part. He spoke to you like he knew what he expected out of you.”
Winters, 92, of Hershey, was a first lieutenant with E or Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division when he and his men dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day to successfully knock out German artillery trained on the Normandy beaches. The commander later rose to the rank of major and received the Distinguished Service Cross.
The proposed bronze statue – depicting Winters running with an M1 Garand rifle – is expected to be erected in 2011 at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, near the Utah Beach and Sainte-Mere-Eglise. It would sit atop a stone base bearing names of the units that fought at Normandy and include a quote from Winters: “Wars do not make men great, but they do bring out the greatness in good men.”
“This is not a monument just for Major Winters,” said Tim Gray, a documentary filmmaker (timgraymedia.com) and Kingston, R.I., resident who has been leading the monument effort. “We used him [Winters] as an example of what leadership was on D-Day.”
Gray began raising tax-deductible contributions for the project about a month ago, and has at least $25,000 toward the $400,000 needed to erect the monument and produce a film that will focus on the effort.
Curt Schilling – former pitcher for the Phillies and Boston Red Sox, and fan of Winters – is the national spokesman for the project and will narrate the accompanying documentary. “We’re reaching out to anyone and everyone,” Gray said. “We’re hoping people, individuals and corporations, will recognize what we’re doing.”
Among Winters’ biggest supporters are Guarnere and Heffron, who describe their own experiences while also praising Winters’ steady leadership.
Sgt. Guarnere was ready for a fight by the time D-Day arrived. He had just learned of his brother Henry’s death at the hands of the Germans in Italy and wanted revenge.
On the way to Normandy, Guarnere saw “constant flashes” of gunfire below. “If you ever saw a Fourth of July celebration, magnify that 10,000 times.
“I couldn’t wait to get off the plane,” he said. “I killed every German I could. That’s why they called me ‘Wild Bill.’
“I landed in the middle of a square and they [Germans] were shooting at us. They were kind of scared; we were scared, too.”
Guarnere and Heffron later parachuted into Holland on Sept. 17, 1944, as part of Operation Market-Garden, one of the largest drops of airborne troops in history.
The Germans “were very much surprised,” Heffron said. “You dropped and you held your ground. You did what you had to do.”
Heffron and Guarnere were called upon again in December to fight at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, as the German army tried – one last time – to throw back the Allies.
They were in a freezing, snow-covered forest when the German artillery zeroed in on the Americans there. Guarnere was helping a wounded comrade when a shell exploded, taking off his right leg. “I got whacked,” Guarnere said. “The medics came and got me into a jeep.”
Heffron continued on and was among the first soldiers to enter Adolph Hitler’s Eagles Nest, the German leader’s abandoned mountain sanctuary at Berchtesgaden. There, a German general and colonel asked to surrender to an American officer of equal rank.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m pretty rank,’ and got a lieutenant to take care of it,” said Heffron, who refused to return the salute of the German officers.
He returned to Philadelphia in late 1945 and decided to check up on his old platoon sergeant. He walked to Guarnere’s house, the two went out for a beer, and they have been inseparable ever since.
They still feel a strong bond and share a kind of celebrity as members of the “band of brothers.”
Many people phone them or show up at their houses just to meet them and shake their hands. Last month, a woman from France came to Guarnere’s door and gave him a bottle of wine.
They don’t enjoy the attention; they’d prefer to put the war behind them. But these days, they’ll endure it for the sake of their commander and the monument project.
Winters “deserves it,” said Guarnere.
Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or [email protected]
By David Filipov
NATICK — Morley Piper stood in a room filled with the things his enemy once carried and tried to tell a story that after 66 years he still does not understand: How he survived the bloody assault on Omaha Beach on D-Day, when so many of his fellow US infantrymen did not.
As Piper reached back for those memories, a small crowd waited in a hall stocked with mortars, machine guns, and grenades taken from the battlefields of Europe. Steel-jawed soldiers glared from authentic Nazi propaganda posters. An air raid siren wailed.
The audience had come on a recent Thursday to the Museum of World War II in Natick to the hear front-line accounts from Piper and other members of his dwindling generation.
Until this year, only a select group of World War II buffs and researchers was allowed into this astonishing trove of wartime artifacts hidden in a squat warehouse off Route 9. Now, for the first time, the highly secretive museum is offering public tours guided by veterans like Piper in a setting that lets visitors see and touch the mess kits they carried, the uniforms they wore, and the weapons they fired on battlefields over six decades ago — and share in the memories they have kept ever since.
“Most of us thought we weren’t going to make it off the beach,’’ said Piper, of Essex, who was a 19-year-old second lieutenant when he commanded a platoon in the 29th Infantry Division that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Of the 40 men in his platoon, 17 survived.
Piper told visitors how German defenders had pinned down his company in the sand. He told of the exhilaration he and others felt when they broke through a hole in German fortifications. Piper was eventually awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. But he dismissed his commendations with the modesty common in veterans of the war. “It was nothing special to get the Bronze Star,’’ he said. “I don’t talk about it much now. It’s hard to do”.
Other World War II veterans have gone public with their stories, but until now, no one has done it in this particular setting — a museum that actor and producer Tom Hanks has described as the “Holy Grail of World War II.’’ The idea is to bring to life the events chronicled by the more than 5,000 letters, battle plans, weapons, and other relics assembled in the 10,000 square-foot space through the insights and sensations that only someone who was there can share.
“The only way a person can experience more personally this cataclysmic period is to look into the face and hear the voice of an ordinary person who rose to the challenge of extraordinary times and saved the world,’’ said museum director Kenneth W. Rendell, who assembled and owns the collection. “To look into the eyes that witnessed the turning point of the century is deeply moving and unforgettable.’’
The eyes of Samuel Bernstein, a Randolph resident, briefly teared up as he recounted his role in the assault on the island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific. “Please bear with me, I don’t like doing this,’’ Bernstein said, his voice faltering. But, he added, “I owe it to the boys who didn’t come home.’’
The visitors were rapt as Bernstein, who was a 20-year-old machine-gunner in the Fifth Marine Division, described “36 days of hell’’ from the beach landing on Feb. 19, 1945, to the last, desperate battle.
Against the backdrop of mess kits, medals, and letters soldiers had written home, Bernstein recalled the surprise counterattack by the island’s Japanese defenders on the last day, which killed the two other men in his foxhole. The men had handed in their ammunition before boarding the ships that would take them home. Bernstein had kept two M-1 rifle rounds as souvenirs.
“They saved my life,’’ he said.
The museum plans to use the proceeds from the tours with veterans to raise money for its own project to keep history alive: a documentary film called “Saving the Reality,’’ which compiles first-hand accounts of more than 50 combat veterans and others who witnessed war and its consequences, including Holocaust survivors and civilians on the home front.
The three-hour tours will run on Thursdays and Saturdays through the Fourth of July weekend, and cost $100, which is a tax-deductible donation. The museum also offers unguided tours for $25 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“People who have the interest know the value of the experience of being able to interact with these veterans while also supporting the goal of preserving their stories in the film,’’ said Tim Gray, who is producing the documentary. He added that the museum will donate copies of the film to schools and libraries in Massachusetts.
Veterans speak at exhibits that match their experiences. Piper spoke in a section that contained the complete plans of the invasion of Normandy, a mannequin of a French woman outfitted in a wedding dress stitched together from a US paratrooper’s parachute, and a bust of Hitler that had come into the possession of General George S. Patton, who then trained his dog to urinate on it. In saving the reality, Rendell does not attempt to sanitize it; the bronze bust is streaked with stains.
The museum keeps its address a secret: Visitors find out where it is only after they have made their reservations. When they arrive, they must pass through a metal detector, under security cameras, and they sign a release promising not to photograph or make videos of the collection. They must make reservations at least two weeks in advance, and no one under 18 is admitted.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind collection in the world, and because it’s hands on, you don’t want anyone leaving with something they shouldn’t leave with,’’ said Gray. “Museums have safeguards in place so that someone doesn’t walk off with a van Gogh or a Monet. This is a collection of the real stuff and you can’t put a price tag on its historical value.’’
The value of the guided tour was evident when Jon D’Allessandro, a World War II buff who owns a construction company in Avon, chatted with Richard Dinning of Natick, who flew more than 30 missions over Europe as the pilot of a B-17 bomber in the 351st Bombardment Group.
Dinning told the story of a bombing raid in 1944 when he had decided not to put on the flak jacket and helmet he was supposed to be wearing, and instead left them under his seat, “because it was easier to fly that way.’’ At one point, he felt shrapnel hit his plane, but no one on board could find the damage. It was only after the bomber landed that Dinning saw that the shards had pierced the plane directly under his seat — and been stopped by his body armor.
“If I’d have worn my flak vest I might not be around,’’ he said.
After the war ended, Dinning flew freed French prisoners of war, who had spent nearly five years in a Nazi camp, from Austria to an airport south of Paris. He recalled when the B-17 flew across the French border.
“There wasn’t a dry eye on the plane,’’ Dinning said. “There’s no satisfaction in combat, but that was a good mission.’’
More information about the tours is available at www.museumofworldwarii.com.
David Filipov can be reached at [email protected]
ESPN’s sports issues oriented program Outside the Lines aired two segments with former Red Sox legend Curt Schilling focused on Rhode Island filmmaker Tim Gray’s efforts to honor those who led the way in Normandy, France on D-Day.
Outside the Lines originated its program from the National Museum of World War II in New Orleans, LA. The program’s setting was chosen to recognize the upcoming Veterans Day holiday in the United States.
Among a few other veterans’ related topics, the program focused primarily on Major League baseball star Curt Schilling’s efforts to honor the veterans of World War II and also previewed an upcoming Band of Brothers event at the VMA in Providence, which Schilling hosted along with original veterans from Easy Company and a few of the actors from the Emmy Award-winning HBO series and noted military historian, Ron Drez.
Schilling talked with ESPN anchor Bob Ley about the Richard Winters Leadership project in Normandy, an initiative led by Tim Gray, a two-time Emmy Award-winning film producer and former sports anchor/reporter at WJAR in Providence.
The focus of the effort is a leadership monument in the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Normandy, France. The monument is a likeness of (then) 1st Lt. Richard Winters of Easy Company, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne and features a quote from Winters on the abilities of American soldiers to accomplish extraordinary things under combat situations.
The leadership monument in Normandy recognizes the names of all the American divisions who led the way on June 6, 1944.
Major (then a 1st Lt.) Dick Winters was commander of Easy Company on D-Day. E-Company was made famous in the book Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose and the HBO series by the same name produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
To view the ESPN program, please click here.
COLLEYVILLE, TX — Through a hail of German bullets and exploding shells, the soldiers of Company H, 504th Parachute Infantry frantically paddled their way across the Waal River in The Netherlands on Sept. 20, 1944.
Lt. James Megellas, known at “Maggie” to his men, and half of his platoon occupied one craft in the initial assault across the river. Their objective: Capture and hold the northern ends of two bridges at Nijmegen. Those bridges were to be part of the lifeline for the air and ground campaign known as Market Garden.
The other half of Megellas’ platoon was in the boat next to him, until it was hit by a shell, spilling the men into the river. Many of the other boats were also ripped and punctured by bullets and shells, forcing troopers laden with gear to swim across the swift river.
It was the combat engineers’ responsibility to get the British-supplied boats across the river and back to ferry more soldiers. But, like many of the others, Megellas, lacking a paddle, used what was handy to get to the other side as soon as possible.
He used the butt of his Thompson submachine gun.
“Fear gave way to hysteria,” Megellas, now of Colleyville, wrote years later in his book All the Way to Berlin. “The fear of making it never entered my mind. I was one of about 250 fanatical men driven by rage to do what had been asked of us.”
What was asked of these men — boys really, ages 17 to their early 20s — was to cross the river, run more than 200 yards in the open to an embankment, clear out the German soldiers, fight their way to the bridges and secure those bridges before they were blown up. All of it in the face of an enemy determined to use any means to stop them.
That the men of the 504th, which was part of the 82nd Airborne Division, succeeded was due to their determination, their “rage,” as Megellas put it.
Back to The Netherlands
Now, almost 67 years later, Megellas is on a trip back to the Waal River, Nijmegen and those bridges. He is going with two of his former sergeants, Bernard Cheney of Bangor, Maine, and Bill Hennigan of St. Paul, Minn.
A film crew is documenting Megellas’ return to some of the European battlefields that he crossed in more trying times. The documentary, to be called James Megellas: All the Way, is being made by Tim Gray, a Rhode Island-based film maker as part of a series. The former soldiers are expected back home this week.
“This will be a documentary on leadership in combat in World War II,” Gray said before departing for the trip. “It is not a history of the war, but a history of Maggie’s war. What he did. How he led as a platoon leader.”
Megellas, now 94 years old, says in his book that “wars are not fought on maps by moving pins designated as armies and corps. They are fought on the ground by squads and platoons of young soldiers.” And those soldiers are led by junior officers and non-commissioned officers — the sergeants and the corporals — who are the same age or slightly older.
But “being an officer and a platoon leader did not automatically command the respect of the men,” he says in another part of his narrative. “It had to be earned, and that could be done only by leading.”
Gray agreed that out of World War II came great leaders, not just the generals like Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton, “but also the men who actually fought.”
He said Megellas is “a fascinating guy,” who remembers everything about his war experiences. “It seems like men in war are born to lead,” Gray said. “You talk to men in his platoon, and they say he made all the right calls, he led from the front and he earned the respect of his men.”
Filming nearly finished
Gray said the trip to Europe will bring the filming for the documentary almost to a close. He has followed Megellas to World War II reunions and even to a Green Bay Packers-Dallas Cowboys football game, where the former soldier was a featured guest. He hopes the project will be ready to air on television later this year.
Megellas ended the war as a captain and the most-decorated officer in the history of the 82nd Airborne Division with 25 medals and decorations. Those decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Presidential Unit Citation. He also was selected in 1945 by his commanding general, James Gavin, to receive the Military Order of Willhelm Orange Lanyard from the Dutch Minister of War. More recently, Megellas has been nominated twice by congressional resolution to receive the Medal of Honor based on his actions during the Battle of the Bulge.
By Steve Norder [email protected]:
Former Rhode Island Governor Bruce Sundlun lived one of the most amazing escape stories of World War II–and now his story will receive national recognition in a film by the Kingston-based World War II Foundation. The film is scheduled to be completed by the spring of 2013, but in the meantime there will be an official kickoff event for the project on August 18th at the Westin Hotel in Providence.
Sundlun, who died last July at the age of 91, has “a story of perseverance and courage worth preserving for future generations of Rhode Islanders,” according to Tim Gray, Emmy Award-winning producer and Chairman of the WWII Foundation. “It is an incredible story of survival, especially when you take into account that Sundlun was Jewish and had to make his way through occupied Europe. If he was captured there was a very good chance he would have been shot or sent to a concentration camp.”
In World War II, Bruce Sundlun’s plane, a B-17 bomber named the “Damn Yankee,” was shot down over Nazi-occupied Belgium in December of 1943. For Sundlun, the plane’s pilot, it was his 13th mission over Europe. After six months time cooperating with the French Resistance under the code name “Salamander,” he made several attempts to enter neutral Spain. He decided there was too much danger of capture or loss in the snowy Pyrenees, so he made his way on stolen bicycles across France and escaped into Switzerland in May of 1944.
Before escaping into Switzerland, Sundlun was engaged with the Maquis–the French underground–in acts of sabotage against the German Army. Later, he was recruited by Allen Dulles working out of the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland to reenter France under the auspices of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner to the CIA) to act as a bombardment spotter for the Allied invasion of Marseilles in August 1944. Later in the war, Sundlun would also fly missions over the Himalayan mountains and in the Pacific theater of war. The documentary film titled “Above and Beyond,” will chronicle Sundlun’s thrilling tale and include a never before seen and candid interview with Sundland conducted by the WWII Foundation in 2006.
The WWII Foundation
“The mission of our WWII Foundation is to preserve stories like this so that future generations understand leadership, initiative and what lengths that generation went to to preserve the freedoms we have today. We have chronicled many stories of WWII veterans throughout the world and this story in particular just has it all,” Gray said.
The Foundation’s films air nationally on PBS affiliates around the country. It has already produced five documentary films to date and is currently in post-production on its sixth and seventh film projects.
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NEWTON, Mass. — It seems best to start with the motorcycle, the one Izzy Arbeiter got on, fell off and got on again. In those first days of freedom, it was the motorcycle that took him to Anna.
“After what she did for me, I had to try to find her,” says Arbeiter as we talk at his home in Newton.
He is 87 and Anna is 86, and they have numbers tattooed on their arms that are stark reminders of their time in the Nazi death camps and a testament to their unlikely survival. They have been married for 66 years and live in daily confirmation of good triumphing over evil.
Early this year, Arbeiter spoke in Berlin. He has spoken often in Germany about the things that happened in Auschwitz and Treblinka and the Jewish ghettos.
“I want Hitler to look back from the grave and know that this little Jew he wanted to kill is the proud patriarch of four generations,” he told his German audience.
Those four generations are all over the house in Newton. There are pictures of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They are pictures from an American life born in the ruins of Europe in1945 and shaped by a Jewish man on a motorcycle he didn’t know how to drive.
Arbeiter went back in April to the places where he lived through the horrors of the Holocaust. He has gone before, with children and grandchildren. He wants them to see the places they have heard about, to see where the Nazis did their slaughter and where two people came out alive to tell the story.
This time, he went back with Rhode Island filmmaker Tim Gray. Gray, who is chairman of the World War II Foundation, has produced outstand ing films about World War II and the people who fought it. He first met Arbeiter at the World War II Museum in Natick, Mass.
“I heard his story,” says Gray. “And I turned to my cameraman and said, ‘We have to get this guy back to Poland.’
On Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Gray’s film “A Promise To My Father” will be shown for the first time at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston.
The title of the film is taken from what Arbeiter describes as the darkest day of his life.
“It was October 26, 1942. The SS came to the town where we were and ordered everybody out. The young, who could work, were separated. The very young and the elderly were put on the other side of the marketplace.”
That meant he and two of his older brothers were on one side, his parents and his 7-year-old brother Josek on the other. The cruel separation took place in the Jewish ghet to of Starachowice, where his family had been taken from their home in Plock on the Vistula River.
Arbeiter looked over and did what a son would do.
“I sneaked over to my parents.”
His father told him to go back.
“He said ‘go back over there and try to save yourselves. And make sure that you carry on the Jewish life and the Jewish traditions.’ ”
His father, Icchak, his mother, Hugara, and brother Josek were taken to Treblinka death camp, where they were among the estimated 900,000 Jews murdered.
Arbeiter and his other brothers — Aaron, Motek and E-Lick — were put to work as slave labor in the Nazi war machine. Izzy, Aaron and Motek would survive. E-Lick was never accounted for.
“I was put to work in a munitions plant,” says Arbeiter. “We were making 105mm shells. There were two 12-hour shifts, and very little food.
“That’s where this young lady comes in.”
He turns to Anna, who puts her arms around him and says this is a good man she has been married to all these years.
And she remembers the time in the camp at Starachowice, where she worked in a kitchen, when she learned Arbeiter was sick and she snuck food to him at great personal risk.
It was an insane time. It was a time when the depraved had free rein. Arbeiter remembers the commandant of the camp at Starachowice. He wore a submachine gun around his neck and sometimes invited friends to the camp to watch him shoot prisoners. And Arbeiter remembers too well the time he and other prisoners were run out of their barracks and shot down as they ran.
“I was the only one of 87 people who lived,” he says. “I see it in front of me every day.”
We have heard the stories from the survivors so many times in so many ways that the pure, consuming evil perhaps doesn’t register as it should anymore. But Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter continues to tell of that time when millions were marched from their homes and starved and shot and gassed. He continues because it is a vital part of him to be the historian and the teacher who honors that promise to his father.
And we need to listen and think about that time when a cultured, civilized society made itself accessory to mass murder. We need to hold on to the idea that the darkest side of human possibility has no end date.
In the autumn of 1944, Arbeiter was sent to Auschwitz, where one of his jobs was to haul the waste from the latrines in a wagon. He strung a wire inside the wagon and hung smuggled food from it.
“I knew the guards wouldn’t look there.”
At Auschwitz too, he stayed alive because he could work. But others got off the trains and were sent straight to their deaths. The sounds of children screaming for their mothers and fathers stay with him still.
His captivity ended in southern Germany, where he and others were being marched to a place where they thought they would be left to starve to death. But Russian troops were close and the German guards ran.
“For a week, I was numb. After 5½ years, living in sick, horrible conditions — the filth, the beatings, the dead…”
Among the saddest memories are of the people who, when liberated, ate too much food, on stomachs that had been empty for too long, and died.
Arbeiter broke down.
“I cried, I was screaming ‘who am I?’ ”
He walked out into the early days of postwar Europe with no idea what he would do, where he would go. An American major helped him. He got him a shower, clothes, and, most important, papers that would get him through military checkpoints.
Then he found the motorcycle. He spotted it in a garage in a village. It had a full tank of gas, so he figured it belonged to a German. And the German wouldn’t miss it.
“I borrowed it,” says Arbeiter. “I had never ridden a motorcycle before. I fell off, but I got back on.”
Rumors were rampant. People knew people who knew where other people might be. The postwar grapevine was filled with informa tion about lost people looking for other lost people. Arbeiter learned that Anna Ballter, the girl who had gotten food to him in the labor camp, was still at Bergen Belsen, the concentration camp in northern Germany that had been liberated by British forces.
“I found her barracks. I walked in and said to her, ‘Would you like to go for a ride with me on my motorcycle?’
Anna was living with four other girls. They had only one pair of shoes and a different woman got to wear them each day.
“Today is not my day,” Anna told Izzy.
Izzy bribed the girl with the shoes.
Anna was warned. Don’t go with this man, the other girls told her. He is a gigolo, a real Casanova.
“That was 66 year ago,” says Izzy. “She’s still around.” They were married in 1946. Their daughter, Harriet, was born in 1948. The next year, an aunt living in Boston sponsored them to come to the United States.
Arbeiter got a job in a cloth ing factory at 75 cents an hour. He got a second job with a tailor at 50 cents an hour. He went to night school. He and Anna celebrated his first paycheck by splurging 10 cents on day-old bread.
He put together some savings, borrowed some money, and opened a small tailor and dry cleaning shop on Talbot Avenue in Dorchester. The business grew. He bought another cleaning business in Newton, where 40 years ago he also bought the house that is now filled with all those family pictures.
He retired in 1995. He did not stop speaking. The promise to his father endures. He is president of the American Association of Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston.
There is a scene in Tim Gray’s film in which Arbeiter walks through Auschwitz, pointing to the places where Jews took “the long walk into the unknown” with soldiers, dogs and machine guns on both sides of them. He points to where his bunk was and to the spot where people waited before being led into the gas chambers.
“So many stories to tell from here,” he says. “If that ground over there could talk …”
He encounters a group of students:
“It is a very good thing, bringing you here,” he tells them, “so young people can learn.”
Gray says Arbeiter’s memory is incredibly sharp, filled with vivid detail.
But at Treblinka, Arbeiter broke down.
“It’s where his parents were killed,” says Gray. “I remember it was a very dark night and there was almost complete silence.
“You could feel the torment of the soul.”
For information on the premiere of “A Promise To My Father,” go to http://wwiifounda tion.org/events/promise
By LARRY ALEXANDER
Lancaster County’s World War II hero, Maj. Richard D. Winters, was a man of quiet humility.
But even he would’ve been hard-pressed to remain humble Thursday, when a documentary film highlighting his leadership skills made its world premiere at Franklin & Marshall College.
The film, “Dick Winters: Hang Tough,” was produced, written and directed by Rhode Island filmmaker Tim Gray. It debuted before a packed auditorium at F&M’s Barshinger Center for Musical Arts.
The 56-minute documentary tells the story of Winters’ Lancaster County upbringing and his leadership skills as commander of the famed “Band of Brothers.” It is narrated by British actor Damian Lewis, who portrayed Winters in the Emmy-winning HBO documentary.
The film also documents the creation and unveiling of the Maj. Richard D. Winters Leadership statue, unveiled June 6 outside St. Marie-du-Mont, a French town liberated by Winters and his men in 1944. The statue depicts Winters, rifle at the ready, charging forward, a determined look etched on his face.
During a VIP reception at Roschel Performing Arts Center prior to the showing of the film, Gray said the statue and film are the result of three years’ work.
“I spend a lot of time in Normandy, and over there, Dick Winters is really the face of leadership,” Gray said. “When we were getting to know the French people, especially in the area of St. Marie-du-Mont, and we started discussing a leadership monument, his name came up first.”
Gray approached Winters with the idea in 2009, telling him that, even though the statue would bear his likeness, it was to honor all men who led the way on D-Day.
“He said that’s the only way he would do it,” Gray said.
The statue was created by sculptor Stephen Spears of Fairhope, Ala. Also in attendance Thursday, Spears said Winters’ firm, strong facial features made him the perfect symbol of leadership.
“This was an individual who had strength of character, determination, and sense of will,” Spears said. “It was all there.”
Jordan Brown, 13, of Lebanon, raised $100,000 toward the leadership project by selling rubber “Hang Tough” bracelets for $1 each. He attended the statue dedication in France, where he addressed the crowd.
“It was amazing,” he recalled. “There were Americans and French people who all came there to see the monument. It was cool to know that everybody cared about Dick Winters.”
F&M President Daniel Porterfield also took part in the dedication in Normandy, representing the college from which Winters graduated in 1941.
“It was a tremendous pleasure to represent Dick’s alma mater,” Porterfield said.
Simultaneous with the F&M showing, “Dick Winters: Hang Tough” was shown publicly at the Penn Cinema IMAX theater. It will be shown Sunday at the Allen Theatre in Annville.
Gray said the film will be offered to PBS, and he expects it will be shown on TV in the spring.
However, DVDs of the film will go on sale through Gray’s World War II Foundation, possibly in December. He expects the cost to be “about $20.”
The film will be available online at www.wwiifoundation.org.
He had last stood in this cellar about seven decades ago with his brother, Motek. Hitler had annexed a portion of Poland into his “Greater Germany.’’ Jews were being targeted for deportation. The boys’ father told them to bury what they wanted to save, silver candlesticks and other religious items that had been in the family for generations. They put them in a bucket and covered them with earth. They would be back someday. They were sure of it.
Now, Arbeiter, who goes by Izzy, peers through the darkness.
The digging has been going on for more than two hours. Izzy’s grandson and a family friend have raked through the basement, using shovels to probe through layers of dirt, sand, broken bricks, till, and wet clay. But the candlesticks are gone. Like so much else. His home, his parents, two of his brothers.
Izzy has traveled more than 4,000 miles from his Newton home to get here. It is not his first trip back to the towns and fields where he and his family encountered a Nazi regime intent on wiping out Jewish life in Europe. But, at 87, he believes it will be his last.
On his eight-day journey from his childhood home to the sites of concentration camps in Poland and Germany, Izzy revisits his darkest moments and recounts his miraculous escapes. His story echoes the terrible odyssey endured by a generation of Holocaust survivors that is slowly dwindling.
He has come, he says, to tell their story through his own. But his trip has a personal motivation as well. He has come to reclaim a remnant of what he lost, to say a final farewell to his parents. “To make my peace with what happened,’’ Izzy puts it, although he cannot say exactly what that would be.
He encounters kindness and good will, and a sincere effort among Poles and Germans to atone for the sins of the past. But peace, no. Peace eludes him at every turn.
. . .
On April 25, the day of his 87th birthday, Izzy is walking through a forest in the eerie half-light. Everything is still. Now and again a cuckoo makes its mournful call. He passes a long row of flat, rectangular stones spaced like railroad ties. And that is what they represent—the tracks upon which cattle cars brought people to this place to die.
This is the Treblinka death camp. Between July 1942 and August 1943, the Nazi SS troops murdered an estimated 900,000 Jews here. Izzy climbs a gentle slope toward the somber memorial to the victims—a monument surrounded by 17,000 jagged granite stones that look like the teeth of some giant predator. Each represents a town, city, or country from which people were sent here.
Izzy has visited before. He moves surprisingly quickly in the darkness. He wears a pacemaker and has trouble getting in and out of a minivan, but his grip is firm, his gait is steady, and he seems to find renewed strength when he gets close to his goal. Soon, he finds the marker inscribed with the name of his hometown, Plock. He has come one last time to say goodbye to his parents and youngest brother.
He last saw them alive on Oct. 27, 1942.
“The darkest day of my life, and it is still with me,’’ Izzy says.
That was the day SS troops entered the ghetto in Starachowice, the Polish town south of Warsaw where his family had arrived from East Prussia a year earlier after being deported from Plock. In the middle of the night the Germans ordered everyone into the Starachowice marketplace.
The SS separated the people into two lines. Those who they figured would make good slaves went into one line. Those they considered unfit went into the other.
The Nazis deemed Izzy and two of his brothers robust enough for work. They put his parents and his 7-year-old brother, Josek, into the other group.
Izzy remembers the soldiers shouting and ripping babies from the arms of mothers, tearing apart husbands and wives, dragging screaming children away from their parents. He remembers running over to the column where his mother and father were standing.
“I had never been separated from my parents,’’ he explains. “But my father realized what was happening.’’ Icchak Arbeiter sent his son back to the other column.
“He told me, ‘Children, go back over there, and if you survive, remember to carry on with Jewish life and Jewish tradition.’ And those were the last words I heard from my father before they took him—and everyone in his column—off to Treblinka.’’
Izzy repeats this story all the time. Every single time, 70 years later, his voice cracks. But he does not cry.
“My parents and brother were murdered,’’ Izzy recalls. “In Auschwitz, you at least had a chance to survive. If you were brought here, you were doomed.’’
He is still standing over the Plock stone. The markers stretch into the darkness. Treblinka was not a large camp. About three dozen SS carried out the killings, accompanied by about 100 Ukrainian guards. The elderly, unaccompanied small children, and infirm, who would slow down the flow of people to the gas chambers, were taken into a building disguised as a hospital with a Red Cross flag flying overheard. They were undressed, shot, and thrown into a burning pit. The healthy were taken to the chambers and gassed. The SS constantly increased the efficiency of this ghastly killing machine. At one point they could kill 3,800 people at a time.
It is getting dark. A cuckoo calls out eight times.
“I might not be able to come back here,’’ Izzy says. His voice quivers.
Izzy walks off by himself and says Kaddish, the prayer of mourning: “. . . blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world. . .’’
He walks back down the hill in the deepening gloom.
. . .
Izzy’s childhood home—the condemned building on 3 Kwiatka Street—was in the center of the thriving Jewish quarter of Plock, a small city on the Vistula River in central Poland where about 10,000 Jews lived before World War II. His father was a tailor who ran his business out of the family’s small, two-room apartment. His mother, Hugara, took care of Izzy and his brothers—Elek, Motek, Aron, and Josek. Her basketball team, she called them. Izzy, whose childhood nickname was Srulek, still has pictures that his family had sent to relatives in the United States before the war. He is the skinny kid in the middle.
“We thought we had the good life,’’ Izzy, who grew up speaking Yiddish, says in fluent English but with a heavy accent. He recounts his stories methodically, with a straight expression, eyes forward. Izzy has a lively wit and a knack for deadpan humor, but that all fades when he talks about his past.
The candlesticks were a family heirloom, passed down to Izzy’s mother from her mother. Izzy remembers his mother lighting them on Fridays before sundown for the observance of the Sabbath.
Izzy also recalls his parents listening to the radio blaring next door and hearing news of the rise of Hitler in Germany. At first, Izzy’s father dismissed the idea that Germans would go along with Hitler’s ideas. Then, Germany occupied Poland in 1939, and Jews were forced to wear yellow stars. Izzy’s eldest brother, Elek, left Poland and headed east. The family never heard from him again.
In 1940, part of Poland, including Plock, was incorporated into Germany. That was when Icchak Arbeiter told Izzy and Motek to bury the candlesticks and the other religious items. The tenants of Izzy’s building each had a small storage space in the cellar, where they kept potatoes, beets, coal, and wood.
In February, 1941, the SS came in the middle of the night. They rousted Jews from their homes. They beat them with their rifles. And they took them away.
. . .
It is a warm day in Oswiecim, a modest town an hour’s drive east from Krakow, through countless fields of vivid yellow rapeseed lined with mistletoe-covered oak. A blue 2004 Boston Red Sox World Series cap over his thinning white hair, a white dress shirt, and slacks allow Izzy to blend in with the other foreigners who come in large tour buses from Krakow to see one of the world’s most infamous landmarks.
But when Izzy walks through the gates into the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of concentration camps, he experiences something tourists cannot.
“When I come in I automatically stop and look back to make sure the gate is still open,’’ he says.
When Izzy was sent through that gate 68 years ago, he was made to wear the striped uniform of an Auschwitz prisoner, designating him as a Jew, condemned to die sooner or later.
When his parents and little brother were sent to die at Treblinka, Izzy and his two brothers were taken to a concentration camp in Starachowice, where the sadistic commandant executed Jews at will. The SS routinely rounded up the sick and the weak and murdered them. When Izzy fell ill with typhoid, it was a death sentence. He was sent to a barracks with 86 other stricken prisoners. What happened next is a story he has been telling since he was liberated in 1945. One night, the camp’s commandant and its Gestapo chief ordered them from their bunks and shot all of them—except Izzy, who managed to escape to another barracks. There, friends were able to hide him. A female prisoner named Chanka, who was working at the kitchen where meals were prepared for Gestapo officers, was able to pass along food that helped him return to health.
In 1944, with the Soviet army approaching, the Nazis abandoned Starachowice and transferred the surviving prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Izzy walks along the now-unused rails he rode in on a cattle car. He stops at an intersection where Nazi physicians decided the fates of hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of seconds by pointing left or right.
“But we didn’t know which one was going where,’’ Izzy says. “My column was ordered to walk right here.’’
He calls it the longest walk in his life.
Izzy turns and follows that path. It is lined by tall, barbed-wire fences that contained high-voltage wires. Izzy saw prisoners throw themselves on the fences, preferring to choose their own fates.
“I was crying,’’ he recalls. “No one listened. We just kept walking all the way to the very end.’’
His group had been selected to work, not die.
Izzy takes his companions to a quiet birch grove. For a place where more than a million people were killed, Auschwitz-Birkenau is remarkably alive. Deer prance among the long rows of crumbling brick barracks. Startled pheasants fly out of the ruins of gas chambers that the Nazis destroyed so the advancing Soviet army would not find the evidence. Owls circle over fields of yellow and lavender wildflowers and dive at unseen prey.
Izzy sits down on the cool grass.
It was in this spot, he says, that men, women and children who had been selected to be gassed sat out the final moments of their lives, before their captors sent them into the chambers.
“The waiting room to be taken in and be killed,’’ Izzy calls it.
The gas chambers were where the cries of children would slowly fade to silence, where people tried to escape by clawing their way out with their fingers.
“Can your mind even imagine that concept?’’ Izzy asks.
His can. One of his jobs was to clean out toilets and cart away the waste in a covered trolley. That gave him access all over Auschwitz-Birkenau and allowed him to sneak bits of food the Nazis left behind when doomed new arrivals at the camp were stripped of everything they were carrying. The SS frequently would search Izzy, but not the trolley. So he strung a wire over the fecal matter where he could hang pieces of bread. Izzy had enough food that he could share. He was also able to leave bread on the bunk of Chanka, the girl who had helped him at Starachowice.
Izzy survived the arbitrary executions, the epidemics of typhoid, the constant cold of the unheated barracks where, he explains, there was a chimney and a stove that was never lit.
An estimated 1.1 million of the 1.3 million people sent here did not survive. They included Poles, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, people of other nationalities—and, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum, about 1 million Jews.
Few Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors come here anymore, said Jacek Lech, a Polish guide. Over the 11 years he has worked here, he says, he has met five.
As Izzy makes his way back toward the gate, he passes tourists from Israel, Germany, and the United States who have no idea that the Red Sox fan was once a prisoner.
Someone in a boisterous group of high school students from Slovakia overhears Izzy as he points out an old cattle car and tells his companions about the grim selection that took place here. The students, in bright T-shirts and sunglasses, grow silent.
“This is my number,’’ Izzy says, rolling up the sleeve to reveal the tattoo on his left arm: A.18651.
“Whoa,’’ say the students.
They listen intently as he tells them the story of the selection, the gas chambers, the crematoria.
“This was a factory for killing people,’’ he says.
Izzy tells the students that they can prevent this from happening again.
“You’re all beautiful,’’ he says. “Enjoy your life. And go home and tell your parents, your families, what you learned, what you saw here.’’
. . .
Izzy has returned to Poland and Germany several times. He testified in Nazi war crimes trials. He has visited Auschwitz and Treblinka. He has trekked to Plock and even talked to the people who once lived in his apartment. But he had never before this trip asked permission to go into their basement. Now, the building has been condemned. After a day of haggling, Polish officials send workers to break through a walled-off door so that Izzy and his companions can dig up the cellar floor. The skinny kid now has a protruding stomach and a blocky body. But he is surprisingly agile once he descends into the basement.
Izzy’s grandson, Matt Fritz, and Jon D’Allessandro, a family friend and World War II buff from Quincy who helped finance the trip, grab the shovels they have purchased in a nearby hardware store. Izzy points out the spot where the family’s storage area was once marked by wooden dividers. The cellar is lit by a video team shooting a documentary about Izzy’s life for the WWII Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to preserve the story of those who fought, and survived, the war.
Fritz and D’Allessandro start to dig. Steam comes off their bodies as they work in the bright lights.
The pit is four feet deep when Izzy calls off the digging.
“Somebody got to it before us,’’ he says.
The Polish officials shrug and shake his hand.
“They’re definitely showing me the good will,’’ Izzy says. “They went out of their way to help.’’
He walks out onto Kwiatka Street. It is a modern, bustling city street, with a bank, a store that sells upscale home furnishings, a flower shop, and cafes. Izzy takes a final look at his former home.
“I was very much disappointed,’’ he says. “I came over here and the reason was to dig up objects that belonged to my family for generations. And I did not find them.’’
. . .
Izzy is standing in a field of bright yellow rapeseed outside the villages of Hailfingen and Tailfingen, near Stuttgart, Germany. During the war, the Nazis were building an airfield here. Izzy was one of 601 Jews taken from Auschwitz to a camp in Stutthof in northern Poland. From there, they were brought to the Hailfingen-Tailfingen concentration camp in November 1944. Half the prisoners died.
“When we saw there were no gas chambers, we thought we were safe,’’ Izzy says. “But the method that was used here was starvation, which took longer than the fifteen minutes in the gas chambers.’’
To this day, family members say, Izzy always worries that there will not be enough food.
The dead bodies piled up in the concentration camp. Finally, the SS forced the prisoners to bury more than 70 Jews in a mass grave in the field next to the airstrip.
After he was liberated in April 1945, Izzy led French officers to the site. The French ordered townspeople to dig up the bodies, put them in coffins, and rebury them in the town cemetery. Germans from nearby towns were commanded to put on their best clothes and line the street to watch the procession.
The story of Hailfingen-Tailfingen faded after the war.
“We knew there was a camp here but it wasn’t in official records,’’ said Harald Roth, 61, a secondary school teacher in a nearby town. In 2002, Roth said, he and several other Germans began researching the history of the camp.
The group found records with Izzy’s name. It took them two years to find him, Roth said. They asked Izzy and other survivors to help them reconstruct the story of Hailfingen-Tailfingen. In 2010, a permanent exhibition about the camp opened in Tailfingen, and a monument was erected near the site of the mass graves in Hailfingen. Izzy spoke at the inauguration.
Now, on a sunny day in April, Izzy is here to say Kaddish again, perhaps for the last time. “. . . May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. . .’’
He shows his companions the quarry in Reusten, near the Hailfingen-Tailfingen camp, where he labored for the Germans. He points to a house where a German couple, the Roths, no relation to Harald, used to sneak food to the prisoners as they were marched to and from the quarry.
“If they had been caught, they would have been severely punished,’’ Izzy says. The couple’s daughter, whom Izzy met on a previous trip, still lives down the street. Someone alerts her, and in a few moments, Hilde Gauss arrives. “Srulek! Ooooh,’’ the 80-year-old woman cries, using Izzy’s childhood nickname.
“See?’’ Izzy’s usual deadpan breaks into a real smile. “She remembers! She remembers!’’
Not all of Izzy’s encounters in Germany go so well.
His German friends introduce him to Walter Fischer, 84, in a town near the airfield.
During the war, Fischer volunteered for service in the Hitler Youth. Fischer’s unit was trained to fly gliders, in preparation to become the next generation of Luftwaffe pilots. In 1943, at 14, Fischer was stationed at the airfield where the monument to the camp now stands.
After the war, Fischer became an electrical engineer and came to the United States. From 1959 to 1968 he worked for Sprague Electronics in North Adams, Mass., and later for IBM in upstate New York. He was offered a job in Germany and moved to the Stuttgart area in 1970.
Fischer was involved in early efforts to recognize what happened at Tailfingen and Hailfingen.
“I ran into stone walls,’’ he says. “People feared to become associated with a crime committed near their homes, but which they had nothing to do with and no chance to prevent.’’
In 1982, he helped organize a ceremony at the cemetery in Tailfingen to commemorate the burial of the victims of the concentration camp. It became a yearly tradition. At a restaurant in Tailfingen, Fischer tries to explain to Izzy that many ordinary Germans were unaware of the Holocaust.
“I would say that the average German, my parents for instance, could not imagine that a German government would ever do such crimes,’’ Fischer says.
Izzy rolls his eyes while Fischer is talking.
“That’s not true,’’ Izzy says. “The only ones that didn’t know were the ones that didn’t want to know.’’
Izzy glares at Fischer. Fischer stares down at his beer.
Later, as Izzy is walking away from the restaurant, he does not hide his disgust.
“If he speaks about himself and says that he wants to reform himself, then that’s good,’’ Izzy says. “But if he says that the majority of the people didn’t know, then that’s not true. Because that’s Holocaust denying. And I cannot accept Holocaust denying.’’
Izzy is asked what someone like Fischer, who served the Nazi regime but has done so much to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, could do to make things right.
“Nothing,’’ he says. “They cannot bring back my family.’’
The two meet one last time, the day before Izzy flies home. Fischer acknowledges that Germans like him have much to atone for. But, he says, there are other things to worry about, such as the environment.
“I wouldn’t want to be confronted every day with the Holocaust,’’ Fischer says. “I couldn’t live that way.’’
Izzy rolls his eyes.
. . .
On Izzy’s 20th birthday, on April 25, 1945, he was part of a group of prisoners on a death march from the Dautmergen camp through the Black Forest. The SS planned to bring the ones they did not shoot or starve to death to a mine and bury them there.
Again Izzy escaped death. French troops found his column. He and his fellow prisoners were liberated. Allied forces ordered German families to put them up. Izzy did not linger. One day, he took a motorcycle from a garage—“I borrowed it,’’ he says—and drove it to Stuttgart. He was detained by American military police. Once they heard his story, they gave him papers that allowed him to pass freely through checkpoints and get fuel from the US military for the motorcycle.
The Americans set up a camp in Stuttgart for people displaced years ago from their homes. There, lists of the names of prisoners from other camps were posted, to help people find friends and family. Izzy learned that his brother Aron was in a town near Munich. When Izzy went there to find him, someone else recognized Izzy and told him that his brother Motek had survived and was in Italy. In Stuttgart, Izzy also learned that the girl he knew in Starachowice and Auschwitz-Birkenau was at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany.
Izzy rode the bike to Bergen-Belsen. He talked his way past the British authorities overseeing the camp. He found Chanka.
“She was sharing shoes with four girls,’’ he says.
The next day he took her to Stuttgart. In 1946 they were married in Reusten. Harriet, their oldest daughter, was born in 1948.
The next year, the young family moved to Dorchester to live with Izzy’s aunt, whose family had left Poland at the turn of the 20th century. They learned English and changed their names: Srulek became Izzy; Chanka became Anna. He got a job in the clothing industry and later built his own business.
They had another son and a daughter. They have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Izzy and Anna, who is 86, live in a comfortable home in Newton, with a view of the swans and Canada geese that ply the Charles River. On the wall of his den hang decades of commendations and pictures with famous people. He is president of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston. He was among the founders of the group that built the Holocaust memorial in Boston. Germany awarded him the Order of Merit in 2008 for fostering German-Jewish understanding and for his efforts on behalf of Holocaust survivors. He is proud of these achievements.
He is even prouder of the three generations he and Anna have brought into the world.
It is a cool, overcast day in May. Izzy is sitting at his dining room table in Newton. Anna is next to him, leaning on her walker.
On the table stand two antique silver candlesticks. Not the ones he had hoped to find in the cellar of his childhood home in Plock, but a nearly identical set.
His relatives had brought them to United States when they emigrated from Poland. After Izzy returned from Europe empty-handed, his cousin, Rita Stulin, who lives in Newton, decided he should have her set.
So now he does.
“My intention now is happiness, joy at seeing what we have accomplished from nothing,’’ he says. “We defeated Hitler. He is dead. We have a beautiful family.
“This was my answer to my father,’’ Izzy says. “He told me to survive and to carry on the Jewish way of life. And I did.’’
A light breeze sends tiny eddies across the Charles. The only sound is the cluck of grackles and the distant honking of the geese.
Israel Arbeiter’s voice starts to crack, but he does not cry.
The national CBS Morning Show featured the unveiling of the Richard Winters Leadership Monument in Normandy, France on June 6th. CBS had a crew in France and in the United States where they interviewed Jordan Brown regarding his team-effort to raise almost $100,000 of the $250,000 needed for the statue.
Please click here to see the national coverage of the event.